Refugees should be housed in empty convents, monasteries, says Pope

(Photo: REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi)Boats follow the papal boat during Pope Francis' visit at Lampedusa Island, southern Italy, July 8, 2013. Pope Francis made his first official trip outside Rome on Monday with a visit to Lampedusa, the tiny island off Sicily that has been the first port of safety for untold thousands of migrants crossing by sea from North Africa to Europe. The choice of Lampedusa is a highly symbolic one for Francis, who has placed the poor at the centre of his papacy and called on the Church to return to its mission of serving them.

Refugees should be housed in disused church buildings such as old convents and monasteries while they should be welcomed and not feared, Pope Francis has told asylum seekers in Rome.

During the week, the pontiff made a private visit to a Rome soup kitchen and shelter run by the Jesuit Refugee Services, the Centro Astalli, Vatican Radio reported.

There Pope Francis thanked the staff and volunteers for their generosity and time in helping around 21,000 refugees who pass through the shelter each year.

He appreciated the center for "recognizing them as people," and for working "to find concrete answers to their needs."

"Empty convents and monasteries should not be turned into hotels by the Church to earn money," said Francis on Tuesday noting that the buildings housing them "are not ours, they are for the flesh of Christ, which is what the refugees are."

Turning empty convents and monasteries that no longer have nuns and priests due to a drop in vocations into hotels has raised funds for the Church, but also attracted criticism, Reuters news service reported.

In Rome, Jesuit Refugee Services runs three shelters, an Italian language school, and a health facility providing special attention for victims of torture, and legal counseling services.

Among the refugees the Pope met were asylum seekers from Syria. Francis and many other global churches leaders have urged peace and not more war in the area from which the United Nations estimates at least 1.5 million people have fled.

The pontiff said that Francis those who care for the poor and afflicted should not just be specialists but all members of the Church, and that priests should be trained in such work.

Pope Francis note that "our city" Rome is often the second stop for tens of thousands of refugees who first make their way to the island of Lampedusa at Italy's southern most tip. Francis visited there in July.

The Pope described their passage from North Africa as "difficult and exhausting" and said he thinks "above all about the women, the mothers who endure these hardships in order to ensure a future for their children... and a different life for themselves and their families."

"How many times," Francis wondered, "have many people with '(under) international protection' written on their sojourn permits - here and in other places - been forced to live in impoverished conditions, at times degrading, without the possibility of beginning a dignified life, to think about a new future."

Noting the elements of Jesuit mission, Pope Francis said to serve means "welcoming the person who arrives, with care" and "bending over" those in need by "offering a hand" without "calculation" or fear, but with tenderness and understanding.

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